No quarters needed: Milwaukee man builds his own basement arcade
From the outside, Garance "Gar" Nelson's home looks a fairly ordinary house. You would never know from looking at it that in the basement lies a time machine, one that has the power to teleport visitors to a bright, glowing world of robotic battles, demons, space travel and yellow creatures with an unquenchable hunger for white dots and ghosts.
That's right: the '80s.
Before the days of home consoles, "Call of Duty" and online video gaming, arcades were how you got your video game rush. They were everywhere, offering up a brief thrilling rush for every quarter you could beg from your parents. Of course, as the home console market grew more popular, arcades and arcade games lost their appeal, eventually fading almost entirely out of existence.
Many of the companies most associated with arcade games – Atari, Midway – are either out of business or struggling immensely to stay relevant in a world where Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony rule.
The days of arcades as a cultural mainstay have seemingly long since died, but in Nelson's basement, the era is alive and well (when I got my tour, the sound system was cranking out '80s hits like "Gloria" and "Danger Zone").
"Most of us that are really into this were kids when the golden age of arcades was happening," Nelson said. "Every time we walked into an arcade, it was like this whole other world. We didn't have a Wii or an Xbox; we got to suck quarters out of our parents and hope the local 7-Eleven had some games."
For a while, even Nelson had forgotten about those arcade days until a co-worker gave him the spark to pick it back up again.
"Somebody that I knew and worked with came along and said that he had a couple of pinball machines in his basement, and I was like, 'That's cool! I could do that!'" Nelson recalled.
He soon found himself in possession of a malfunctioning Asteroids Deluxe arcade cabinet, given to him by a man tired of having the broken old game lying around. It then sat in Nelson's basement for another four years before he got tired of looking at it as well and decided what the heck, let's fix this thing or pitch it. A new monitor and entirely redone boards later, the classic game was up and running, and so was The Garcade.
"A pinball machine came home after that, 'The Six Million Dollar Man,'" Nelson recalled. "It was very cool. It lasted a couple of years around here before it started acting up, and I was like, 'I want something different anyways.' So I got rid of it and started looking into other stuff. Now they just keep following me home."
The Garcade is now up to about 20 fully functioning arcade games – a few, like his Nintendo PlayChoice-10, that hold several games in one – and four pinball machines. Most of the games are classics: Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, Rampage, Tempest, Pole Position and a gorgeous Robotron cabinet that he managed to snag for a mere $25 on an online auction. There are a few relatively modern games (Radikal Bikers, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3) and deep cuts (Wizard of Wor) mixed in as well. And, of course, there's a high score board to commemorate each game's champion.
Nelson gets machines from all over the place, usually via online auctions or tips from fellow arcade collectors and enthusiasts in the area. Many of them require work; Nelson seemingly has a story for each game about a monitor needing fixing, a faulty board or some other weird glitch that required hours of pouring over intimidating – and often dangerous –messes of wires and fuses. But the work makes hitting the "Start" button in the end all the more worth it for Nelson.
"The only way it leaves down here is if it has a catastrophic failure or if it gets sold, which happens very rarely," Nelson said. "Once you start playing with them, digging in and fixing them, they almost become a part of you. Once you put that blood, sweat and tears into it, getting rid of it is a bit harder."
Later on my tour of The Garcade, Nelson couldn't stop himself from popping open several of the pinball machines and arcade games to show me the insane number of wires and intricate parts that needed work and inspection.
"It's like a guy who fixes up cars," Nelson said. "The thing he wants to do is take his buddies out for a ride and squeal the tires. He wants to show you that it's not just working; it's working amazingly."
Over time, Nelson's passion for arcade games has turned into a family affair. His wife fully supports The Garcade, okaying every purchase and making sure that they can make each new game purchase work financially (she only insists the arcade doesn't cross a certain line into the family room part of the basement). Meanwhile, his hobby has become his children's hobby. His son Myles (who you may recognize as the young boy who got a letter from Vice President Joe Biden many months back) joined The Garcade team two years ago.
"I originally started with him going along on the road trips to pick the machines up with me," Nelson said. "Over the course of time, he started to learn how to work on the machines. Last winter vacation, he spent the last day rebuilding the trackball on Milipede. I stood back and told him things, but he turned every wrench and put every piece in place. And he's learned how to do that."
The Garcade's Facebook page is now filled with photos of Myles tinkering with arcade circuit boards and bringing old machines to new life. There's always parent supervision; after all, some of the fixes, like monitor adjustments, can be very dangerous ("He is learning to respect that," Nelson laughed). But the end goal for Nelson – a working arcade machine – is now almost getting surpassed by the collaborative journey there.
"It's something we get to do together, and now my daughter is starting to go on the road trips with us, so the tradition's kind of moving along with her," Nelson said.
Unfortunately for outsiders looking for a Galaga fix, the playing of the games in The Garcade is also mostly just a family and friends affair. However, start collecting your quarters, because according to Nelson, plans to move The Garcade out of the basement and open it up to the city are in the works.
"We would like to open something that's nothing more than arcade games, party space and good bar food," Nelson said. "A place where you can go and enjoy yourself. I'm talking with Doc Mack from Galloping Ghost – a very successful retro arcade down in Brookfield, Illinois – and looking through his business plan to see how he built his business up. I'm hopefully going to be looking to do something very similar in the near future, either downtown or in the Bay View area."
Along with measuring the financial risks, there are also a few political hoops to jump through. Attitudes have changed toward arcades – and toward video games in general – since the '80s, when such places were viewed as dark hangouts for teens to smoke, drink and misbehave, but the leftover city ordinances and restrictions are still in effect.
Still, Nelson remains undeterred, and The Garcade remains unfinished. He currently has a 1966 shuffle bowler in his garage, as well as a classic crane game and a Space Invaders bootleg that he's almost completely fixed up. Plus, there are always games he's on the hunt for.
"Right now, the biggest one on my want list is Joust," Nelson said. "The original Joust is a great single player game and a great two-player game. You can play it against one another; you can play co-op. There's a lot of replay value."
Of course, Nelson also owns several of the modern home video game consoles as well. Though surrounded by so many arcade classics, you'd be forgiven for not noticing them.
"They have a place; they have a place in my own home," Nelson said. "I have kids, and I want them to be able to play those. But I want them to understand that this is where we are now, and this is where we came from."
During our interview, Myles was playing video games. It was the new consoles quietly sitting in the corner, while the old arcade games chimed away like it was the '80s all over again.
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